17 Jul 2018

New on SoHo: Who Is America?

From Widescreen, 11:19 am on 17 July 2018

Dan Slevin watched the premiere of Sacha Baron Cohen’s vicious new television satire.

Philip Van Cleave and Erran Morad help promote firearms to toddlers in Who Is America?

Philip Van Cleave and Erran Morad help promote firearms to toddlers in Who Is America? Photo: Showtime

Sacha Baron Cohen returning to television is enough of a surprise that Sky’s premium SoHo channel pre-empted their previously announced schedule last night to drop the first episode at 10.30pm, barely 24 hours after it premiered in the US. Who Is America? is Baron Cohen’s latest satire, lampooning the rich, the famous, and the pompous, hoisting them on their own generously-offered petards.

The format will be familiar to anyone who remembers the feature films Borat and Brüno: Baron Cohen pretends to be a self-important but ignorant rube and insinuates himself into interview or social situations with gullible and – mostly – high profile people who then feel obliged (due to either the presence of a camera crew, their political beliefs, personal or professional loyalty to an organisation or idea or just their own sense of hospitality) to play along.

It’s the first time that Baron Cohen has done this for television since the heady days of Da Ali G Show when he had the benefit of a less sophisticated media scene and relative personal anonymity. Now the ruse requires extensive make-up and costume, expensive preparation and a team of eight writers for a half hour show.

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Photo: Showtime

It turns out that half an hour is just about the perfect length for this kind of thing, as is the ability for an online audience to pause or fast-forward through the more excruciating and embarrassing moments. Trapped in a theatre with Brüno back in 2009 was an experience that pushed the boundaries of what this reviewer considered tolerable. The ability to opt out occasionally here is helpful.

Also welcome, is the introduction of four new characters so the weight isn’t being carried by just one although none of them are totally successful at this point, or appear to be fully formed. Billy Wayne Ruddick is a mobility scooter-riding conspiracy theorist with a website called truthbrary.org. Dr. Nira Cain-N’Degeocello is the ultimate cliché of a tree-hugging, NPR-listening liberal that could be put in front of the American establishment but the targets in episode one are the lowest of the low hanging fruit.

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Photo: Showtime

Ricky Sherman is an ex-con attempting to go straight and forge a career as an artist after discovering a talent for painting pictures with his own bodily waste – it’s hard to imagine this character generating enough affection to justify a Borat-level feature film career. The best of the new characters is Israeli counter-terrorism expert and gun rights campaigner Erran Morad but even his superbly conceived and executed persona feels like a single gag spread thin.

Baron Cohen’s comedy is a conundrum to me. He’s a Peter Sellers-level mimic and actor. Despite an East End background, he’s a Cambridge educated public schoolboy, but his humour so often starts and ends in – what’s the word I’m looking for – filth. While the jokes attract and repel at the same time, his longer-form stories have a soft heart combined with hard-nosed politics. I’m very fond of Grimsby and The Dictator, for example.

Who Is America? hasn’t discovered its heart or its soul yet but has certainly lasered in on a political agenda. I wish Baron Cohen would punch up more often – I’m rarely comfortable when his targets are private citizens rather than public figures – but these desperate times appear to be demanding desperate measures.

Episodes of Who Is America? premiere every Monday night at 10.30pm on SoHo and are then available on demand from Neon.